This friendship started as so many do between high school girls: Abby Kessler liked Katie Loftus’ clothes and makeup; Loftus liked Kessler’s.
“That’s all I cared about,” Kessler, now 34, recalled recently. “That, and boys.”
The North Penn High School graduates went on to Drexel University together to study design and merchandising, and then on to New York to work in the garment industry.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, inspired them to move back here and start a line of edgy, embellished T-shirts. By day, they worked at Nordstrom; by night, they were jazzing up shirts, usually in the basement of Loftus’ mother.
They managed to get their Smak line in 20 stores but chafed against the lack of control over display of their creations. So they opened a store of their own in Philadelphia, putting $60,000 in start-up costs on credit cards.
“We had no money,” Kessler said. “We were fearless.”
Eight years later, their Smak Parlour at 219 Market St. in Old City is a mix of their designs and others’ - all on display whichever way they choose. Inspired in part by a retailing trend and by a more risk-averse business attitude they have adopted - call it maturity, perhaps - the pair are about to take a novel approach to expansion.
In what is believed to be a first in Philadelphia, Smak Parlour is going mobile, taking a page from a commercial sector that has exploded in growth on city streets: lunch trucks.
Kessler and her now-married friend and business partner, Katie Lubieski, just got a city license to park and operate on weekdays on 40th Street, between Spruce and Locust Streets, a truck version of their frilly, heavy-in-pink-decor boutique.
Smak Parlour will park bumper-to-bumper with mobile vendors that lure the hungry from the University of Pennsylvania. Equipped with sales racks and dressing rooms, it will roll by the end of June, maybe sooner, depending on the pace of retrofitting. You can keep tabs on Facebook and at www.twitter.com/smakparlour.
“I think it’s the future - going mobile, being at the right spot at the right time,” Kessler said.
It’s already the rage in Los Angeles, which was well ahead of Philadelphia in the gourmet-food-truck movement.
“It makes a lot of business sense,” said Natalie Nixon, director of Philadelphia University’s Strategic Design MBA program and a professor of fashion-industry management. “It really decreases certain overhead costs… . Certainly, it’s going to be an option more for small/medium enterprises because the cost of doing business in this economy is becoming more and more prohibitive. And it’s a way for new entrepreneurs to launch a business.”
Although Smak Parlour paid nearly $3,000 for the privilege to park and sell curbside for a year in University City, the truck won’t be anchored there, its owners said.
“You go where your customers are,” Kessler said. “We’re just going to drive around and see where it’s most successful.”
This summer, visits to the Jersey Shore and street fairs are planned.
The idea to take their store on the road started with Lubieski and Kessler’s desire to add a second retail location for Smak Parlour, which also has an online store (www.smakparlour.com). But where they were looking - Ardmore, for instance - the rents were more than twice what they pay in Old City, they said.
So they went shopping. For less than $10,000, they bought a 2006 GMC 5500 diesel box truck - 18 feet long by 8 feet high - with 183,000 miles on it. It was last used by the Salvation Army.
“We thought it had good karma,” Lubieski, 34, said.
Said Kessler: “It’s super big and badass-looking.”
Among those impressed with the idea is Patricia Blakely, executive director of the Merchants Fund, which has provided a $20,000 grant for the truck’s fit-out.
“The owners of Smak Parlour are the cleverest example of what every smart retailer needs to be - nimble,” Blakely said in an e-mail. “In this changing economy, they have been able to open a women’s clothing and accessories business, be successful, grow sales, and change the model to respond to consumer demand. The new mobile clothing business … means they can take the store to the customers all wrapped in the best customer service. So smart!
“We see this as an emerging trend in retail … and we wanted to be in on the ground floor,” she said.
More enthusiastic reaction about the city’s newest vendor on wheels came from Dan Pennachietti, president and cofounder of the 103-member Philadelphia Mobile Food Association and operator of Lil Dan’s Gourmet, a truck offering “South Philly Italian” fare since March 2010.
“I’m in love with this idea,” Pennachietti said. “It just adds so much more of a dynamic to our trade here.”
He’s hoping that means new customers.
“I cannot wait until I’m sharing a spot with them,” Pennachietti said. “They’re going to bring their own clientele. That may be the clientele that hasn’t had my food yet.”
Abby Kessler and Katie Lubieski explain the idea behind Smak Parlour. Go to www.inquirer.com/smakparlour
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